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Opinion

A Housing Benefit should be a cornerstone of the new National Housing Strategy

Published on 29/11/2016

Every month, families and individuals across the country face a difficult choice: buy groceries or pay the rent?

For about 3.3 million people in Canada (or 1.5 million households), housing that is affordable, in decent shape and big enough for many families is simply not available. These households end up doing without, which could mean living in overcrowded conditions, involuntarily crashing with family or friends, or forgoing warm winter clothes or essential prescriptions.

In response, the federal government is developing a National Housing Strategy. On November 22, Minister Jean-Yves Duclos reported on what the government has heard so far from people in Canada about how to address the country’s housing challenges, and provided a preview of what the strategy will look like when it is finalized next year.

What should that strategy look like? When we think about solutions to housing affordability, we naturally think about building more housing. After all, despite a growing population, we actually have fewer units of social housing (non-profit or publicly-owned homes that offer low-cost or sliding scale rent) than we did 25 years ago, and some of those buildings are in a serious state of disrepair. But we can’t just build our way out of this. Even if we doubled the number of social housing units in Canada, we would still fall well short of ensuring that every individual and family could find an affordable home that meets their needs.

In its announcement, the federal government acknowledged that we must look for a variety of solutions to deal with needs across the housing continuum. If we want to deal with the full range of needs effectively, we must look at solutions that focus not only on buildings but also directly on the people that live in them. One way to do that is by introducing a National Housing Benefit.

A National Housing Benefit would work by providing financial support directly to people to help them pay the rent. This would flip the traditional approach of subsidizing the cost of a particular unit of housing. Instead, the individual or family would get a monthly benefit cheque based on their income and housing costs, to bridge the gap between what they can afford and what they need. Much like other programs such as the Canada Child Benefit, it could be administered through the tax system and automatically adjusted based on changes in income or family situation.

This would give people more choice about where to live, and allow them to move more easily if they need to be closer to work, family, or community services. Research from the National Housing Collaborative demonstrates that it can be an efficient, flexible and responsive way to address housing need. The ability to reach more people more effectively has spurred interest in housing benefits at the provincial level. Manitoba has a new housing benefit and Ontario is piloting a targeted program.

People experience housing affordability challenges for a variety of reasons. For example, the challenge of finding a decent, affordable place to live is different for people relying on woefully inadequate social assistance in expensive cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, than it is for people who face modest but pressing gaps (say $150 per month) that nonetheless leave them constantly scrambling and without any savings or emergency buffer.

Supporting people directly, rather than tying funding to buildings, puts power and choice where they belong – in people’s hands. It allows people to act quickly to meet their particular or changing needs. While governments tend to shy away from open-ended programs, a benefit that helps people meet their needs as they arise is less costly and more responsive than bricks-and-mortar approaches that require heavy investment in dedicated units in anticipation of future needs. If we are serious about dealing with affordability, a housing benefit is a necessary part of the solution.

To be sure, even with a robust National Housing Benefit, we cannot ignore buildings. We must repair and expand the supply of social housing that is an essential part of a range of good housing options. We also need to find ways to encourage more supply in different sizes, form, and price points. But we cannot stop there.

The federal government heard that Canadians are interested in portable benefits that support people directly. It has acknowledged the need for a variety of responses that go beyond bricks-and-mortar investments. If we want to make a real dent in our housing affordability challenges, then a National Housing Benefit should be a cornerstone of the new National Housing Strategy.

Summary

A National Housing Benefit can be an efficient, flexible and responsive way to address housing need, and puts power and choice where they belong – in people’s hands.

Topic(s)

Housing and homelessness